A Time for Diplomacy

A Commentary by Lee H. Hamilton, President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center

Oct 24, 2006

America must respond boldly to the urgent and complex challenge of North Korea's nuclear weapons test. Now is the time for robust diplomacy.

First, it is worth considering what the U.S. wants to achieve. We want the North Koreans out of the nuclear weapons business: no testing, weapons development, or sale of dangerous technologies. If we fail, the North Koreans could unleash a nuclear catastrophe in East Asia, pass weapons or dangerous technologies to terrorists, or prompt a new round of proliferation with countries like South Korea, Japan, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others following suit. We do not want to live in a world where nations think they can develop nuclear weapons with impunity.

Yet our options are limited. North Korea is not going to stop developing nuclear weapons simply because we tell them to. Meanwhile, a military strike is fraught with high risks; the North Koreans could immediately kill tens of thousands – including U.S. troops in the region – in a counter-strike. Military force must remain an option, and we should be clear that there are "red lines" that will result in the use of force, such as the transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists. But force is certainly the option of last resort.

A preferable solution must be diplomatic. To shore up our position, Secretary Rice was correct to reaffirm our security guarantees to regional allies Japan and South Korea. We could also further claim the moral high ground by reaffirming the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty against the testing of nuclear weapons. To assuage concerns that we seek conquest, we should make clear that we want behavioral change, not regime change, in North Korea. Our goal is simple: a non-nuclear North Korea.

Our immediate push has been for sanctions. Unilaterally, the U.S. can seek to cut off North Korea from the international financial system, though that carries the risk of weakening the dollar. U.N.-imposed sanctions can also ratchet up pressure. The real leverage lies with South Korea and China, as the North Korean regime is hugely dependent upon their material support for survival. However, there may be a limit to how hard the South Koreans and Chinese will push: perhaps even more than a nuclear test, they fear a collapse of the North Korean regime, and a flood of starving refugees into their countries.

There are further limits to what sanctions can achieve. North Korea is already the most isolated country in the world, and Kim Jong Il does not care if his people starve. He is interested, above all, in the survival of his own regime. He believes that the U.S. wants to throw him out, and is thus hunkering down with his nuclear program. That means sanctions are likely to work only if they are accompanied by the offer of a negotiated settlement that eliminates North Korea's nuclear program without eliminating the regime.

The grand bargain that could resolve the impasse is this: President Bush makes a direct statement that we have no hostile intent towards North Korea, and the U.S. offers full economic and diplomatic engagement, with accompanying trade and investment in the North Korean economy; North Korea agrees to comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization, a reduction in conventional forces, and improvements on human rights. Kim Jong Il would remain in power; a grave nuclear threat would be eliminated; and the lives of the North Korean people would improve. There are difficult problems of timing and sequencing in this approach, but they can be managed by skillful diplomacy.

This settlement can only be reached by negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, either within or outside of the current framework of the regional "six-party talks." All of our partners – Japan, South Korea, China and Russia – want the U.S. to engage in these bilateral negotiations, and it is not clear that we can reach a settlement without doing so. Time is not on our side. Thus far, we have not really offered the North Koreans this complete settlement. While a diplomatic stalemate has existed for over four years, North Korea has continued to strengthen its nuclear capability. Our choice is between an intolerable status quo and diplomatic action.

"We must never negotiate out of fear," President Kennedy said, "but we must never fear to negotiate." The U.S. is strong enough – militarily, economically, and morally – to protect its interests through robust diplomacy backed by the threat of force. To protect America against the threat of nuclear proliferation, we must engage now in negotiations.







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